Thanks to everyone, but especially to Lynn and to my family, who helped me through this past year. Lots to adjust to, but things are good. I know that many of you have experienced losses, or health issues, or other changes, in your own lives this year. I wish you all strength and hope that you (like me) have the love and support you need.
So, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, or anything else you celebrate at this season. All the best to everyone in the New Year. (It’s going to be 2020! How did that happen?)
Been a long time since I’ve written about hockey on my web site. Just haven’t felt like I’ve had anything much to say. But, recently, I’ve done a few TV and radio hits about Don Cherry and Mike Babcock. Many of you have seen or heard them through Facebook, but for those who haven’t, I’ve posted links below.
The truth is, I’m not really sure why I was called on in these cases. Both events seemed more suited to modern analysis than historical perspective, but I’m hammy enough that even when I’ve wanted to say no, I haven’t turned them down. (For those who are curious, no, they do NOT pay me – which might be why they actually call!) It’s nice to know that they think I can handle myself, and I suppose it means they also believe I have something to contribute to the discussion. So here’s what I might have said about Babcock from an historical perspective if there had been more time…
One of the things that struck me most about firing Mike Babcock is how far the Leafs have strayed from their tradition. (And, yes, I know there’s been a long tradition of being terrible the last 50+ years, but that didn’t used to be the case!)
It’s been a long time, but when the Leafs were at their historical best – in the 1940s and the 1960s – they were defensively sound with star players who put the coach’s systems ahead of their own statistics. Of course, coaches ruled the roost in those days, but I still find this interesting. Traditionally, Montreal had bigger stars and played a more exciting style, but remember that prior to expansion, both Toronto and Montreal won the Stanley Cup 13 times in the NHL’s first 50 seasons. (The Canadiens also won in 1916, before the NHL was formed.) So despite their philosophical differences, there wasn’t much to choose results-wise between the NHL’s two greatest franchises
Yes, Toronto did have some star power over the years. Players such as Charlie Conacher, Busher Jackson and Syl Apps were once among the biggest names in the game. But guys like Dave Keon and Teeder Kennedy (who were ranked first and third among the team’s top 100 back in the 100th anniversary season – Apps was second) were “200-foot players” well before that was a term. Those two didn’t win a ton of individual honours, but they won the Stanley Cup plenty of times!
When I was putting together my book The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History, I was struck by how similar the coaching philosophy of Mike Babcock seemed to be to that of Hap Day. Day was named team captain in 1927-28 and later became the most successful coach in Leafs history in the 1940s before moving into upper management. Here’s how he explained his coaching philosophy to Jack Batten for his 1975 book The Leafs in Autumn:
“When I was a defenceman on Toronto, I saw all kinds of players in front of me, and I learned right then that it’s defence that wins hockey games…. When you think of defence, you think of the two men, the defencemen, isn’t that right? Wrong! Think of all six men doing the job on defence. I told my players if they worked as hard coming back as they did going down the ice, we’d be okay. Of course, you had to have the proper type of player to handle that approach – or make them into the proper type of player. A player’s got to learn to keep his mind on defence, apply himself.”
Now, I’m not saying the Leafs were wrong to fire Mike Babcock. If they truly believe they have the run-and-gun skill team Kyle Dubas wants, Babcock no longer looked like the right man for the job. As I said on TV and radio, he seemed determined to make the team fit his system (or die trying!) rather than adapt his system to fit the team he had. But Day didn’t adapt either, even with scoring stars like Apps and Max Bentley. He made them play defense. And he got results with Stanley Cup wins in 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948 and 1949 (plus another as GM in 1951) to point to.
I found this interesting too…
This is what Sheldon Keefe said in one of his early press conferences after being named Leafs coach: “I’m not focused on what this team isn’t. I’m focused on what this team is.”
It put me in mind of what new coach Billy Reay said back in 1957 when he was hired after Day was let go: “I try to capitalize on a player’s strong points, rather than in trying to build up his weak ones.”
Similar sentiments, I think!
But it didn’t work out so well for Reay. The Leafs went 21-38-11 in a 70-game season in 1957-58 and finished last in the overall standings for the only time in the six-team era. After getting off to a 5-12-3 start the following season, Reay was fired and Punch Imlach took over. Like Day, Imlach ran a team where star players had to fit into his system … and there were Stanley Cup parades again in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.
Now, I’m not suggesting the Leafs need someone like Punch Imlach, whose dictatorial ways couldn’t possibly fly today. (Nor am I saying that Babcock’s implacability makes him some sort of modern-era Imlach – though we are starting to hear more and more about his vindictive personality.) Nor do I believe the Maple Leafs were ever quite as tough as Conn Smythe’s “beat ’em in the alley” philosophy intimates, but I do agree that there are other ways of being tough that don’t involve beating up on someone. I actually hope the Leafs can succeed on offensive skill, but I’m not yet convinced they have those other kinds of toughness. But I have no analytical insights into that.
So, was changing coaches a good move? Only time will tell…
My web site recently turned five years old. I posted my first story on October 10, 2014. Seems hard to believe. The intention at the time was to promote my writing and to try and drum up more appearances for me at schools to talk about my kids books. It was NOT to help me work through my problems.
That said, a lot of you have only been reading my site since I started posting stories about Barbara and me. Even for those who’ve followed me since the beginning, I’ve certainly gotten more reaction from these personal stories than anything else … and it helped me. A lot. So, thank you. Still, I’m not one who really likes to talk about his feelings! When I had something to say (or something to work through) I wrote about it. But I haven’t felt the need for a while. I guess that’s good.
When my web site was first set up, I told people that I would use the News and Views section to “share some of the quirky sports history stories I come across during my research.” It was fun for me, so I pretty much shared something every week. But I haven’t had much cause to be poking through old hockey stories lately. Nor much inclination, either. The truth is, the only real lingering side effect that I can detect in myself after 14 months is that I don’t have much enthusiasm for work. That might be a function of aging as much as anything. I don’t know. But even when I’ve had work, and I’ve gotten into it – and expected that would make doing more work easier – I still wake up the next day thinking, “I have to do it again?!?”
Well, I may not like working, but I do like to eat … so early this past summer, I agreed to do a book about football for National Geographic Kids. (Mainly American football, but I slide in the occasional Canadian reference when I can.) The book will be very similar to many of the hockey books I’ve done in the past, but I have to admit it’s been kind of fun to be researching something different. (As it was several years ago when I did a soccer book for NGK.) This one’s going a little slower than I’d like, but I’ll still have it ready for them on deadline at the end of this month. And, recently, while working on it, I came across the kind of story that I love to dig into. So, I thought I’d share it.
The football book is part of a series of Sports by Numbers, so it needs to include as many numbers as it can. Math when possible, but statistical lists are more than acceptable. So, plenty of those. And when delving into the longest field goals in football history (NFL, CFL, NCAA, anything!), I stumbled across the fact that a man named John Triplett “Jerry” Haxall had kicked a 65-yard field goal for Princeton versus Yale … in 1882!
Given how large and heavy a football of that era would have been, this struck me as pretty much impossible! I had to know more.
Fortunately, Wikipedia has a short entry on Haxall. He was from a wealthy Virginia family and later went on to a long and successful career in banking in Baltimore. Not that Wikipedia tells you much about that. But it did have a reference to a story by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice on November 30, 1915 that proved a fine starting point.
As it turned out, on October 16, 1915, a player named Mark Payne at Dakota Wesleyan University had drop kicked a field goal from 63 yards out, breaking the 1898 drop-kick record of 62 yards by P.J. O’Dea of Wisconsin (both of which also strike me as impossible!) This put Haxall’s 65-yard place kick — which had been noted year in and year out in the Spalding Football Guide – back in the news. And (like me, now) there were people who doubted it.
Apparently, Grantland Rice asked to hear from anyone who’d been at the game and could testify to Haxall’s record. He got a response from James O. Lincoln, Yale class of 1884. “Dear Sir,” wrote Lincoln. “Luther Price, a newspaper man whom I know well, is correct. Haxall kicked that goal against Yale in 1882. I saw him perform the feat. Although, of course, the spectators did not measure the distance, it was beyond the midfield, and was announced at the time as being sixty-five yards.”
This satisfied Grantland Rice … but I was still skeptical. So, I began looking for contemporary accounts of the game played at New York City’s old Polo Grounds. In reporting on it, the Boston Globe on December 1, 1882, said only that, “This was the greatest kick ever seen.” The New York Sun said, “It was a long distance, and nobody believed that he could make it.” However, the Sun also said the ball “was 115 feet from the goal.” That’s only 38 yards or so, and, apparently, it was this account that led people in 1915 to wonder. But the New York Times (who wrote Haxall’s name as Hoxall) had said in its game report, “He was over 65 yards from Yale’s goal,” and the Hartford Courant (which spelled his name as Hachall) said he “sent the ball 66 yards across the field to the goal.”
But I was still curious, so I kept digging…
Next, I found a story from December 12, 1915, which quotes Parke H. Davis writing a few days before in the New York Herald. “Since I am the compiler of this record,” wrote Davis of his work for the Spalding Guide, “I beg the privilege of defending its accuracy… My authorities for fixing the distance of this field goal at sixty-five yards are the accounts in the Yale News, the periodicals at Princeton, and the testimony of several eyewitnesses of the kick.”
The Yale News of December 5, 1882, quoted by Davis, says that the Yale team knew to look out for Haxall, and that he was 65 yards from the Yale goal, “when he made a kick that would have disturbed the transit of Venus. Slowly, steadily the ball was blown onward by the wind over the heads of the breathless players to drop at last on the wrong side of the goal for Yale. And now pandemonium reigned among the yellow and black. It is said that this is the finest kick ever made. You should erect a bronze statue of Haxall, Princeton.”
As to the players Davis interviewed, many had gone on to be prominent business men. “The members of these football pioneers are strikingly clear as to the events of the game, he says. “While no one of them says positively that the goal was kicked down sixty-five yards, in the absence of any mark except the midfield mark, which was fifty-five yards distant from the goal [NOTE: American fields were not reduced to the 100-yard standard of today until 1912, while Canadian football fields have remained 110-yards long], all of these players, nevertheless, assert that the kick was ‘about sixty-five yards.’”
It’s interesting to note that the Princeton narration of the game says only that “Haxall kicked (a) magnificent goal from midfield among Princeton cheers.” Yet Davis then quotes a player from that game who’d become a well-known clergyman in New York … though he chooses not to mention him by name: “Haxall put the ball down for a place kick fully 65 yards from the goal line,” states the clergyman at the end of a lengthy recollection of the game, “and what is more he stood at least 15 yards towards the one side line from the center of the field, thereby not only making the kick more difficult but in reality making the kick longer than 65 yards. The ball sailed in the wind squarely between the posts.”
Not surprisingly, all the talk of his 33-year-old field goal record came to the attention of J. Triplett Haxall himself. He was then asked by a fellow Prinecton alum to give his account of the kick, which he did for the Princeton Alumni Weekly in mid December of 1915.
Haxall writes that he and Tommy Baker (apparently an uncle of U.S. hockey legend Hobey Baker) had practiced their kicking “for some time preceding the Yale game of 1882.” They discovered that having the holder place the ball practically perpendicular to the ground and then kicking it on the bottom end, “started it accurately revolving on its long axis and resulted in long distance being realized before it began to drop.” Haxall added, “why the tendency nowadays seems to be to kick the ball in its middle and not on its ends I have never been able to understand.” (I guess kickers eventually rediscovered Haxall’s technique.)
As for the big kick in the Yale game – which Princeton lost, by the way: “I have always understood the distance was as recorded by the officials who had such matters in hand. The claim lately advanced that, due to a typographical error, the distance should have been 35 yards and not 65 yards, I think all the writings of the time sufficiently refute.”
Haxall recalls, “the wind was blowing sufficiently to require testing its direction by tossing up a bunch of grass or something of the kind,” but states that his record kick, “was the result of quite long practice by Tommy Baker and myself.”
Following his death on June 5, 1939, an obituary in the Princeton Alumi Weekly from July 7, 1939 (which is quoted on Wikipedia), notes that Haxall had once remarked, “My epitaph will probably be:
J.T. Haxall Kicked a football. That’s all.
Well, he did get a larger writeup in the Baltimore Sun, but he wasn’t far off.
It still may not be 100 percent official, but if it wasn’t for that lengthy kick, who’d still be writing about John Triplett Haxall today?
Well, I’ve moved. The house closed on August 30, but I pretty much moved out on August 26. Given that the deal was reached on August 1, it was a very hectic month. Going from a three-storey house to what is essentially a three-room apartment on the second floor of another house, meant a lot of stuff wasn’t coming with me. It was emotional at times, parting with many things Barbara had collected over a lifetime, and things we’d accumulated during our years together. But, I think I did a good job. And I was very pleased with how well organized I was. I’m certainly not done yet, but unpacking, and making my new place feel like home, has been easier than I imagined.
That being said, I’m not sure I could have done any of this without my friend Lynn. Lynn was Barbara’s friend first. Sadly, because her own daughter was already battling cancer, Lynn had lots of practical advice when Barbara was diagnosed. We’ve spent a lot of time together, Lynn and I, since we both lost our loved ones. I used to tell people, “we’re sort of a lonely-hearts club.” But we’ve become more than that recently.
In addition to the emotional support we’ve given each other, Lynn found this apartment for me. She’d lived here with her daughter many years ago. Lynn’s continued support (and physical strength!) — not to mention the occasional kick-in-the-butt — got me through all the packing and moving. Thank you, Lynn.
I haven’t moved far, but it’s a huge change. I kind of fought it for a little while, yet I know for sure now it’s the right thing to do. There’s still pictures to hang and clutter to make disappear, but the apartment and I are both going to be fine. And, hey, you’re all invited to drop by! Until then, enjoy a quick tour…
Last week, at about 2 p.m. on Thursday, August 1, I signed the papers to sell our house. A few hours earlier, I’d e-transfered my first month’s rent to the landlord for my new apartment here in town. So, pretty good timing!
When I made my deposit of last month’s rent on the apartment back in May, it felt like August was a long way off. As July raced on without a sale, I was getting pretty nervous! I knew I’d be able to carry both the house and the apartment for a little while — not very long! — but I didn’t like the potential open-ended-ness of it. So, phew! By the next day, I literally felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Packing up (and, really, I’m still in the purging phase — going from a three-storey house to a three-bedroom apartment means A LOT of thing won’t be going with me) has been strange. I’m sure it will continue to be, but I’m feeling good about this.
Except for university, I didn’t leave home until I was 29 years old, and I moved in directly with Barbara. This is the first time I’ve ever lived on my own … and this new apartment will be the first time I’ve lived on my own in a place with no connection to Barbara. But people keep telling me you bring those memories with you. I’m sure I will.
Until then, here are some memories of the places we shared together…
Our first house. A tiny little rental in Toronto at Mount Pleasant & Eglinton.
The first house we owned, in Toronto at Bayview and Davisville.
I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s 11:25 pm on Thursday night as I start writing this. I’m exhausted. I went to bed two hours ago, but I can’t sleep. (Odie just came in. He was asleep on my bed when I decided to come up here and do this. He sleeps light.) So, please forgive any typos, or rambling…
My house — Our house — has been for sale since late April. I’m expecting an offer, perhaps as soon as today as you’re reading this. My thinking is that it won’t be for as much as I’m hoping to get, so I guess we’ll have to play the negotiating game. I’m not really looking forward to that.
It’s been an emotional time, as you can probably imagine. People say, “you shouldn’t do anything major for a year” after someone dies. I suppose that’s good advice … but the truth is, Barbara and I had discussed what the other one might do with the house if one of us died almost from the moment we bought it.
It was always more house than made sense for the two of us, but we loved it. We said to ourselves, “who knows how long we’ll get here? Two years? Ten? But it’ll be worth it.” We got almost 12 years here together … and it was! But now it’s time — for so many reasons — for me to go.
I’ve felt for a while like things are in limbo. Like my life won’t really start again until I’m into someplace new and working on something that I really want to do again. (I’ve got a new kids hockey book due out in the fall, and I’ve just started work on another kid’s book — football, this time — that’ll keep me busy for a while … but the truth is, I’m getting a little tired of doing the same old thing.) Still, it doesn’t mean I’m really ready to leave here yet. I don’t feel uncomfortable, or even sad, in the house by myself; I just know I can’t stay much longer. I won’t be leaving Owen Sound. I’m still very happy here. I just need some place smaller and more manageable for me on my own.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy. Just “staging” the house was emotional. Getting rid of the things I’ve gotten rid off. (I have a friend sort of “coaching” me through it. It takes her a while to talk me into doing anything. When I finally do, I go at it with gusto … and I’m happy for a while, then I’m sad, but then I get over it. And then it all happens again.) The actual move, when it comes, is going to be harder still. But it’s something I have to do.
People say (I suppose the same “people” I mentioned above!) that selling a house is stressful. It is! Which may sound strange considering the stress I was under at this same time last year. But, in truth, a year ago today as you’re reading this — July 19, 2018 –– was a good day, if a somewhat strange one.
Barbara had been on her “chemo break” for close to a month and was feeling as good as she had at pretty much any time since her diagnosis in March. On July 19, we went to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, where we’d been sent by our oncologist in Owen Sound for a second opinion. It was all very interesting. I’ve written a little about this before, so I’ll say only that we learned a lot more than we had known previously, and it seemed very encouraging. (Over the last 11 months, I’ve read and re-read the notes the Princess Margaret doctors sent back to Owen Sound, and looked at the test results. I’ve come to believe that Barbara was actually a lot sicker than anyone was letting on. Still, no one seemed to think that the end would come as quickly as it did. Barely another three weeks.) The next day, we had a lovely time at Edwards Gardens with Barbara’s son Josh and Danielle and our granddaughter. As I’ve said before, it was the last truly care-free day…
So, that’s where I’m at these days. I’ll probably write some sort of update after the house has sold and I’ve made my move.
But, honestly, as I’ve said in many of these more personal posts over the last few months— and despite the way this probably reads — I think I’m doing quite well. Still, sometimes I feel the need to write something like this. And now it’s 12:46 in the morning, so it’s time to go to sleep.
You’d never call me a Raptors fan, but I’m glad they won … and I’m particularly happy for their fans. It’s a lot of fun when your team wins. As Nuke Laloosh says in Bull Durham (a movie Barbara loved, and a line we quoted often) “It’s, like, better than losing!” So, good for the Raptors, and good for basketball fans all across Canada.
I admit, I was a doubter pretty much right up until they won it in Game 6 last Thursday. (I’m not so disinterested that I don’t know their past history of playoff defeats!) I’d been watching a little since the Philadelphia series, but not very closely. In fact, the championship game is now the only Raptors game I’ve ever watched from start to finish … including the one I attended many years ago.
I think the Raptors just came along too late for me. I used to really love basketball. Though I never actually saw them live, I remember the Buffalo Braves and their games in Toronto when I was a kid. I knew who Bob McAdoo was when he was winning scoring titles. I really started paying attention as a teenager, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the NCAA championship in 1979 and was hooked when their Lakers and Celtics teams were battling for titles throughout the ’80s. But by the time the Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, it was too late for me. I was with Barbara and helping to raise Amanda. It was nothing they did. I still watched a ton of baseball, and hockey was becoming my regular “day job.” I was happy — and I didn’t have any interest in more sports or another team.
Amanda and Barbara were happy to be Blue Jays fans, though they didn’t care much about the Leafs. I did take Amanda to the Raptors Fanfest in January of 1999 after the NBA lockout … but that was pretty much it for basketball.
Although I’m not really a Raptors fan, I’m not truly a basketball band-wagon jumper either. So, I think that I’m allowed to say that it annoys me that so many American commentators seem to think that basketball in Canada didn’t exist before the Raptors! That used to bug me about the Blue Jays too. We had the Maple Leafs baseball team in Toronto from 1896 to 1967. My parents – especially my mother – grew up as huge baseball fans! As for basketball, we had a hoop in our driveway 40 years ago, and I played on a team in Grade Six. (I was terrible, and never played for our school teams in Junior High or High School, but we had them!) I know my Uncle Gerry, who recently turned 90, played basketball when he was in high school. (When Jews were inner city kids, basketball was a Jewish game!)
Everyone seems to know that James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891, was a Canadian. And many know that the first NBA game in 1946 (when the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America) was played at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knicks. That’s really it for pro basketball in Canada before the Raptors, but it’s not like the sport was unknown here! It was played by boys and girls, men and women, in clubs and in schools, since the very beginning. Google the Edmonton Grads, if you’ve never heard of them.
With that in mind, I was agreeable when a producer from CTV News Channel asked me to talk about the historic significance of the Raptors’ victory. Perhaps you saw it? (But probably not!) Anyway, three or four minutes on TV go by so quickly, I barely had any time to discuss anything beyond the comparisons with the Blue Jays winning the World Series. So, if you’re interested, you can read this (slightly bulked up) exchange below between me and the producer to get a sense of what I really hoped to talk about…
(Oh, and by the way, I was disappointed that I didn’t mention the Women’s World Cup and Canada’s team when Marcia MacMillan asked me what was worth watching now. Barbara never followed anything in sports the way she was briefly hooked on Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women’s team after watching that epic semifinal game with the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.)
Here are some talking points ahead of tomorrow’s interview at 10:45 AM EST
1. How monumental is this victory?
It’s huge. As the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. Though the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that. The big thing is, how much does this do for basketball in Canada going forward… (See more in the “Where does it rank…” question.)
2. How does it compare to other Toronto titles of the past? The Leafs in 67 and the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993?
The Leafs in 67 has become much bigger in retrospect than it was at the time, although upsetting Montreal in the Centennial year was noteworthy. Very similar to the Blue Jays (see below). But the next Leafs victory — if it ever comes — will be the big one! Though, of course, while the Leafs have a following all across the country, there is also that national hatred of Toronto. The Raptors and the Blue Jays seem to overcome that, as I said.
3. Where does it rank amongst Canada’s greatest wins? (please provide specific examples)
The most obvious comparison is the Blue Jays. I think this is at least as big as that. Possibly bigger. As I already said, as the only Canadian team in an American sport, it feeds into the love-hate relationship with our neighbours. When they validate our victory, it’s even bigger. And basketball is such a global game. No Grey Cup team has a shot at that, and, really no NHL team either.
The birth of the Blue Jays, and then the World Series win, increased interest in baseball all across Canada, and we’ve seen record numbers of Canadians in the Majors in recent years. The birth of the Raptors, and the success of Steve Nash, has already led to more and more Canadians making it to the NBA. This should only increase that in the years to come…
Other examples are the Canadian Olympic hockey wins for the men’s team both in 2002 and, especially in Vancouver in 2010. And, of course, Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972. But those only confirmed that we’re a hockey-crazy country. Just having a women’s national team that competes for World and Olympic titles (and often wins them) has been a huge boost for women’s hockey. More and more girls are playing … but it hasn’t done much to help the women’s professional game.
Donovan Bailey, and the 4 x 100 relay team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Perhaps there’s no Andre de Grasse without that. (Ben Johnson would have been HUGE). Another historic comparison would be Mike Weir winning The Masters … though I think the Raptors and Blue Jays are bigger. Still, is there a Brooke Henderson without that?
The only other examples are really extremely old. There’s the Paris Crew, four rowers from New Brunswick who won Canada’s first World Championship in any sport when they won in Paris, France in 1867. (There was a Heritage Minute about that) Rowing was a huge sport internationally then, and during the 1880s, Toronto’s Ned Hanlon became a world champion and was probably the most famous athlete in the world.
4. What do you think James Naismith would think about the Raptors success?
I’m sure he’d be pleased. But he’d probably wonder what took so long! Naismith (1861-1939) lived long enough to see how popular his sport became all around the world. In fact, basketball became hugely popular very quickly, even in Canada. Canada won bronze in the first official Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, and the sport was very popular in pockets of the country (particularly Windsor, ON and Victoria BC) much as hockey has always been popular in parts of the United States.
Game seven for the Stanley Cup! I haven’t been following the playoffs nearly as intently as I used to, but even if it’s hard to relate to hockey in June when your team isn’t in it (which it most definitely isn’t) … well — it’s still Game seven for the Stanley Cup!
For those who’ve been following even less intently than I have, it’s the Boston Bruins versus the St. Louis Blues. The Blues — who joined the NHL as part of the expansion that saw the league double from six teams to 12 back in 1967–68 — have never won the Stanley Cup before. Boston has won it six times, with its first victory coming 90 years ago in 1929. Even so, the Bruins have never been part of a seventh game for all the marbles on home ice.
I heard someone mention on the radio the other day that this was the Bruins’ first Game seven at home, but that’s not quite as remarkable as it sounds. Boston did win its last Stanley Cup title in a seventh game in Vancouver back in 2011, but this is only the 17th Game seven since the Stanley Cup Final was expanded beyond a best-of-five format 80 years ago in the spring of 1939. (Boston beat Toronto 4 games to 1 that year.) In all that time, seven-game series have been the rarest of all possible outcomes:
Four games: 20 times Five games: 19 times Six games: 24 times Seven games: 17 times
Boston becomes just the 12th NHL city to host a seventh game for the Stanley Cup. New York and Chicago (two other so-called “Original Six” cities) have only hosted the grand finale once. Montreal also has just one Game seven at home. Only the Red Wings and Maple Leafs have had a seventh game on home ice more than once. Toronto won the first Game seven for the Stanley Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1942, and did so again in 1964. Detroit (who lost both of those games, by the way) has hosted the seventh game five times overall, winning three and losing two. Complete Game seven results are as follows:
June 15, 2011 Boston 4 at Vancouver 0 June 12, 2009 Pittsburgh 2 at Detroit 1 June 19, 2006 Edmonton 1 at Carolina 3 June 7, 2004 Calgary 1 at Tampa Bay 2 June 9, 2003, Anaheim 0 at New Jersey 3 June 9, 2001 New Jersey 1 at Colorado 3 June 14, 1994 Vancouver 2 at NY Rangers 3 May 31, 1987 Philadelphia 1 at Edmonton 3 May 18, 1971 Montreal 3 at Chicago 2 May 1, 1965 Chicago 0 at Montreal 4 April 24, 1964 Detroit 0 at Toronto 4 April 14, 1955 Montreal 1 at Detroit 3 April 16, 1954 Montreal 1 at Detroit 2 (OT) April 23, 1950 NY Rangers 3 at Detroit 4 (2OT) April 22, 1945 Toronto 2 at Detroit 1 April 18, 1942 Detroit 1 at Toronto 3
When the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup title in 1929, the final was just a best-of-three affair. Boston swept the New York Rangers in two straight.
Back in April, I wrote about the new playoff format that was introduced that year. It saw the Bruins, who’d finished first in the NHL’s American Division, play the Montreal Canadiens, who’d finished first in the Canadian Division, for one spot in the Stanley Cup Final, while the second and third place teams in those divisions played their only little mini playoff for the other spot. Even though the odd format had been introduced by Bruins owner Charles Adams and his general manager Art Ross, Boston sportswriters couldn’t help mocking the fact that the toughest series already seemed to be over and that the Rangers now had a chance to beat the Bruins for the Stanley Cup despite having lost five of six games to them during the regular season. A Boston Globe columnist known as “Sportsman” wrote before Game one on March 28 that, “The series starting tonight looks a good deal like an anticlimax to a season that has about run its course.”
And with the Bruins on the verge of clinching the Cup title in the second game the very next day, “Sportsman” wondered…
What would he possibly have made of hockey still being played in June?
But, hey, if you’re watching tonight (as I will be), enjoy the game!
I guess I’m lucky that my working life has mostly been an interesting one. I’ve always been a person who didn’t like to do anything he didn’t like to do — and I’ve mostly been able to get away with that! Barbara and I always used to say that we may not make a lot of money doing what we do, but we get to meet some very interesting people and have some pretty neat experiences.
As I’ve said a lot lately, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey. But it does still help me pay my bills, so I continue to pay at least some attention. I may not watch very much these days — it’s not my job to do that anymore — but it turns out that I still enjoy poking around in hockey history.
Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Annual General Meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR) being held in Windsor, Ontario. (That’s the Victoria Day weekend for those you in Canada, or the “they have a holiday before Memorial Day?!?” weekend for you in the United States.)
In the most recent edition of the SIHR Bulletin, Bill Sproule of Houghton, Michigan, posted the following picture he’d recently come across of the 1914-15 Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association…
In this photo, Ernie “Moose” Johnson (third from the left) can clearly be seen wearing a leather football helmet. Bill’s accompanying story dealt with the well-told early history of helmets in hockey, which is always said to have begun with George Owen — a former Harvard football star — of the Boston Bruins in 1928-29. (It appears that football players began wearing helmets as early as 1893!) Bill rightfully wonders if Moose Johnson should be credited as the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet.
Now — surprise, surprise! — I have some doubts about the George Owen story. If he did wear a helmet during his rookie season in 1928-29 (and he may have), it certainly wasn’t widely publicized. Coincidently, when Owen played his first NHL game in Canada against the Canadiens on January 10, 1929, the Montreal Gazette had a story about a player named Nick Carter (aka Fred Carter) wearing a leather rugby football helmet to protect a cut on his head when his Canadian National Railway team faced the Bell Telephone team in a Railway-Telephone Hockey League game (I’m not kidding!) at the Forum the night before. In a story about hockey helmets following the death of Bill Masterton that appeared in The Boston Globe on January 18, 1968, veteran sportswriter Harold Kaese noted that Jack Culhane of Boston College wore a helmet playing hockey during the 1920s. So guys were definitely wearing them that far back, and it was making news when they did.
Whether or not George Owen wore a helmet as a pro hockey player during his rookie season in 1928-29, he definitely wore one during the 1930 NHL playoffs — but so did his Boston defensemates Lionel Hitchman and Eddie Shore. Hitchman, in fact, had already worn a helmet in the regular-season finale to protect a broken jaw, and the article below from the Montreal Gazette on March 20, 1930, mentions that Shore “has worn a headgear in the past.”
During the Bruins’ rough opening-round series against the Montreal Maroons, John Hallahan of The Boston Globe noted that “Owen had a brand new one on that made him look something like a halfback.” If it was brand new, perhaps he’d been wearing an older helmet previously? If so, I’ve yet to see that story. And, if Moose Johnson was wearing a helmet during the 1914-15 season, he may well have been the first pro hockey player ever to wear one. But how come?
A brief search through old newspapers turned up the fact that Johnson (like Lionel Hitchman) had suffered a fractured jaw. He was injured either in a practice leading up to, or the pre-game warmup right before, Portland’s first road game of the 1914-15 PCHA season in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 15, 1914. Game stories make it clear that Johnson played for a while with his head bandaged and The Oregon Daily Journal of January 10, 1915, confirms that Johnson had been wearing a helmet in games. Another story from the same paper on January 24 notes that his jaw had finally healed to the point where Johnson might be ready to discard his headgear.
There’s nothing in the papers that claims Moose Johnson was the first pro hockey player to wear a helmet, but he was certainly wearing one long before George Owen. Admittedly, I’m not sure how a helmet that sits on top of your head protects the jaw on the bottom of your head — although I suppose the ear flaps on a football-style helmet help. But what I found most interesting of all was that sportswriters were already taking shots at the relative toughness (or lack-there-of) of baseball players versus hockey players as long ago as 1915, as this Oregon Daily Journal clipping from the January 10, 1915 edition confirms…
I recently had a very pleasant lunch with someone who asked me why I hadn’t been writing about hockey lately. His question was part of his larger concern for how I’ve been doing. As I’ve been saying all along, in the big picture, I feel that I’m doing fine. Or, at least as fine as can be expected.
So, my being depressed or not being depressed isn’t why I haven’t been writing about hockey. I actually have been writing quite a bit about hockey. I’ve written a new children’s book for Scholastic which will be out this fall, and I’ve done some other writing for a project by another friend whose work I’ve always admired. But the thing is, I’m kind of burnt out on hockey and still unhappy about certain ways in which the NHL Guide came to an end. So I haven’t bothered to write about hockey unless I’m getting paid. Still, I do find that I’ve enjoyed talking about hockey history when I’ve had the chance. So, I figured maybe it was time to post a story again. Because you can always find echoes of the past in anything new in hockey…
With upsets and more potential upsets abounding in the playoffs already, I read recently that this year marks the first time since NHL Expansion in 1967–68 that the top-ranked teams in both Conferences (or Divisions as it used to be) have been eliminated in the first round. The top teams in each Conference aren’t guaranteed to be the top two teams in the overall standings, but this year the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames did indeed rank 1–2 and yet both were bounced quickly.
First-round results from the 2019 NHL playoffs.
Even before expansion, such a double elimination was very rare. In the 25 years from 1942–43 through 1966–67, there were only two times when teams that finished 1–2 atop the six-team standings got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. In 1964, third-place Toronto and fourth-place Detroit eliminated Montreal and Chicago before the Maple Leafs defeated the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. Prior to that, in 1961, third-place Chicago and fourth-place Detroit knocked off Montreal and Toronto before the Blackhawks (still written as Black Hawks back then) beat the Red Wings in the finals. That’s it.
Prior to the so-called “Original Six” era, the NHL featured between eight and ten teams playing in two divisions for 12 seasons from 1926–27 through 1937–38. Never in that time did the top teams from both divisions get eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs … but that was because it was impossible under the playoff formats at that time.
In 1927 and 1928, first-place teams got a first-round bye in a format very similar to the way the Canadian Football League playoffs have usually operated. In 1928, both first-place teams from the regular season (the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins) came off their short first-round layoff and were eliminated in the division finals. After pulling off those upsets, the second-place New York Rangers then faced the second-place Montreal Maroons in the Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers won.
The Ottawa Citizen on September 24, 1928, reports on the new NHL
playoff format and other changes heading into the 1928–29 season.
There were those who wondered if the time off in the first round dulled the two division champions, and the NHL certainly wasn’t happy with the fact that neither first-place team got to play for the Stanley Cup. So Art Ross and Charles Adams of the Boston Bruins proposed a new playoff format that was accepted for the 1928–29 season. With a few tweaks, it would essentially remain in place until the 1942–43 season — although even with all the complaints about the current playoff system, this one looks awfully strange from a modern perspective.
The new format basically created a two-tier playoff in which the first-place team from the Canadian Division faced the first-place team in the American Division in a best-of-five series with the winner advancing directly to the Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the second- and third-place teams essentially played their own short tournament to determine the other finalist.
“The change in the rules,” reported the Montreal Gazette on September 24, 1928, “guarantees that at least one of the teams winning the top rung at the end of the scheduled series will be assured of a place in the [finals].” Of course, it also guaranteed that one first-place team would be eliminated! But it was impossible to eliminate them both. And it did create a viable way of keeping all teams active in a six-team playoff format.
The past is a foreign place! Gordie Drillon gets a haircut and manicure
before scoring the series-winning goal in overtime for the Maple Leafs
over the Bruins in 1938. Turk Broda relaxes in his Boston hotel room.
Another historic note regarding the early ouster of Tampa Bay this year is that it marks the first time in the post-Expansion era that the team that finished first overall in the regular-season standings was eliminated from the playoffs without winning a single game. This has also happened previously, in earlier days of NHL history when series were only two, three or five games long, but it hasn’t happened since 1938. That year, the Toronto Maple Leafs (who’d finished atop the Canadian Division, but only third overall in the NHL standings) swept the first-place Boston Bruins in three straight games.
That 1938 victory over Boston offers something of a cautionary tale to Toronto fans who believe Tampa’s loss and the other upsets clear an easy path to the Finals for the Maple Leafs if they should get past the Bruins tonight. There were upsets aplenty during the 1938 playoffs as well, and a Toronto team that should have easily defeat Chicago for the Stanley Cup lost to what will likely forever be the team with the worst record (14-25-9 in a 48-game season) ever to win it.
But I’m guessing Toronto fans will be happy to take their chances if the Maple Leafs can just beat the Bruins!